Whaling fleets return with largest catch since ban

But new endangered listing for Fin, Sei and Sperm whales offers hope for conservation

Feature story - 25 September, 2002
The Japanese and Norwegian whaling fleets have returned from their summer hunt in the north bringing their total catch this year to 1268 whales, more than any year since the commercial whaling ban was widely taken up. But there is also good news. The endangered status of three whale species has been officially recognised.

The Nisshin Maru, one of the Japanese catcher vessels, transferring a Minke whale to the factory ship in the Southern ocean.

The Japanese whaling fleet returned to port this week after a three month hunt in the North Pacific ocean catching 100 Minke whales, 50 Bryde's whales, 39 endangered Sei whales and five Sperm whales, a total of 194 whales, in addition to the 440 Minke whales caught in the Southern ocean earlier this year. This is the first time in more than 25 years that Sei whales have been hunted. Sei whales were heavily exploited during the last century and are now classified as an endangered species by the Convention for Migratory Species.

The Norwegian fleet has also returned from whaling in the North Atlantic ocean with a catch of 634 Minke whales. Together the Japanese and Norwegian catch is the largest annual catch since 1988 when most whaling under objection to the moratorium ended.

But while the Japanese whaling fleet celebrated the return of their catcher vessel the Nisshin-maru at a small ceremony in its home port of Kushiro, Japan, countries meeting in Germany over the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS) agreed by consensus to list seven whales species as endangered or needing conservation.

The CMS, which conserves migratory species over the whole of their range, brings conservation benefits for whales making it easier to develop a coordinated approach to the conservation of these highly migratory species wherever they go and provide a framework for the development of future regional agreements.

Fin, Sei and Sperm whales received an Appendix 1 listing, recognising them as endangered. They join the Blue, Humpback, Bowhead, Southern Right and Northern Right whales which are already on the list. Minke, Bryde's, Pygmy Right and Orca whales received Appendix 2 listings, recognising that their conservation status would significantly benefit from international cooperation.

Norway, which hunts whales commercially, recorded a formal reservation to the decision but did not insist on a vote. Japan, the world's largest whaling country, is not a member of Convention for Migratory Species.

The listing of these whale species by the CMS recognises that the status of many populations is uncertain and the fact that whale populations are now threatened by a bewildering array of environmental threats including climate change and toxic pollution. For example, new surveys indicate that the numbers of Minke whales in the Antarctic have more than halved since the previous survey in 1990.

But despite the endangered listing of some whales, the Japanese and Norwegian governments will continue their whaling programs unless they begin to feel the heat of international pressure.

For the past 15 years, the Fisheries Agency of Japan has subsidised the hunt for whales through a private organisation set up by Japan's whaling industry under the guise of "scientific research".

Exploiting a loophole in the rules of the International Whaling Commission that allows countries to issue permits to kill whales for lethal research, the whale meat from this 'research' ends up for sale on the domestic market at a value of about four billion yen each year.

This hunt has nothing to do with science, it is all about making money. Last summer's hunt in the North Pacific concentrated on filling the Bryde's whale quota, the species with the highest commercial value.

But trade in whale products would make the industry even more lucrative.

Governments will meeting Chile in November for the Conventional of International Trade in Endangered Species and the Japan government is using this as another opportunity to attempt to open up trade in whale products. The Japanese government is proposing to downlist northern Minke and Bryde's whales which are currently on Appendix 1 prohibiting international trade in these species.

Watch the site in the coming month to find out what you can do to stop the downlisting and prevent the trade in endangered whale species.